CHELSEA and Manchester City will meet in Istanbul on May 29 in the UEFA Champions League final, an appetising fixture in many ways, but to those who like to see two clubs from different countries coming face-to-face, perhaps a little disappointing.
It’s hard to describe the meeting of two of the world’s top clubs as an anti-climax, but in the spirit of pan-European competition, domestic squabbles do not do it for some people.
Of course, in the modern football age of elite preservation, with champions and their bridesmaids invited to the party, this outcome should not surprise us. Indeed, it could have happened more often. Chelsea v City is the eighth Champions League final featuring two clubs from the same league and will be the fourth all-English affair and the second in three years. If Arsenal and Manchester United make it through in the Europa League, it will be a. local double for the second time in three seasons.
What does this tell us? In terms of the Champions League, it underlines the financial power of the Premier League and also that some of the big hitters in Europe are going through a period of transition and reflection. English clubs are more focused these days and coupled with their undoubted fiscal strength, this makes them contenders. They know how to do it now, and with their wage bills, it is the least their fans should expect.
In the Europa, the teams taking part from the Premier are Champions League “failures”, runners-up in a six-team cartel that was involved in the aborted European Super League. In addition, the prospect of Champions League qualification for the winners of the Europa has raised the bar. For Premier clubs this is particularly attractive given the scramble for Champions League places. Premier clubs often went out of the Europa very cheaply, but they now see the competition as a back door route into the land of milk and honey, even if the early stages can be tedious and laden with banana skins.
Two English clubs making it through strengthens the argument that the final venue should be selected towards the end of the competition. In the pandemic world, it is far more logical to host Chelsea versus Manchester City closer to home rather than in Istanbul, especially when supporters will not be there in their hordes. Pragmatism rarely wins, unfortunately.
Obviously, the all-Premier final is a shot in the arm for the Football Association, but UEFA may have mixed feelings. The governing body likes to be inclusive, or at least give that impression, so an England v Spain or Germany v Italy final is arguably more suitable for their own narrative. There’s only one domestic final they would probably approve of and that’s Real Madrid v Barcelona, how they would have loved a Messi v Ronaldo final. They would arguably also tolerate a Manchester derby or Liverpool v Manchester United.
The attraction of European football in the distant past was built on a number of factors that made it exclusive and something of a curiosity: floodlit midweek games; a glimpse of foreigners, some from far-flung parts of the continent; two-legged tactical games; and star players that were generally only viewed in the pages of football magazines. We came across strange terminology such as “aggregate” and “away goals”. It also came with stereotyping that has been consigned to history: Germans were “efficient” and “disciplined”; Italians were “ruthless” and defence-minded; Spaniards were dirty and sneaky; Eastern Europeans were “crack” teams, “well-drilled” and militaristic communists. When a British team ventured abroad, they would often take their own food, petrified as they were of black bread, salami and milkless coffee and tea. All of these things made European football interesting, hence when two English teams were drawn together, it was something of a disappointment.
That has all changed – Premier League clubs are dominated by foreign players, Chelsea and City’s squads both comprise well over 70% expatriates. Of the players used in their semi-final second legs, only seven were English and there were 18 different nationalities on view. This final is global football encapsulated, neither club is truly representative of their country of domicile. Football countries are effectively “markets” which attract the best talent they can afford. Managers like Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola, along with their players, work in England because the money and talent gravitates towards the top markets.
The creation of a European Super League, which for the time being has been put on hold, was aimed at ring-fencing the market, concentrating cash rewards and self-protectionism. In tough times, protectionism always comes to the fore, be it for countries, corporations, politics and people. Football is no different, the privileged will, when under threat, try and create an environment that suits them and them alone and maintains the status quo.
The Champions League went a long way towards creating a “safe” environment that suited the elite clubs. Chelsea and Manchester City reaching the final is fuel for those that want a super league and the figures lend their support. Since 2003-04 when Porto and Monaco reached the final, 28 of 34 final places have been filled by clubs from the 12 Super League supporters. A further four have involved Bayern Munich, and Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund have reached one apiece, clubs that rejected the concept but would surely have been on anyone’s list.
So it’s hard to look upon Chelsea and Manchester City as “English” other than where their stadiums are located. Chelsea are owned by a Russian billionaire, City are de facto the property of a middle eastern state. They were the first to trigger the collapse of the European Super League project, perhaps because they want public perception to be positive, perhaps because they may be happy with the way things are. How many of the 12 signed-up because of the fear of missing out? We shall never know the answer to that, but what we do know is the old-fashioned notion of a football club being the standard bearer for a country has long gone. Players are no longer lads who always wanted to play for their local club. Chelsea’s squad, for example, has only five English-born players and only three are from the London area. Similarly, Manchester City’s squad has only one player – Phil Foden from Stockport – who was born anywhere near Manchester.
It’s effectively a final being played between two extremely wealthy, multinational football corporations, both of whom happen to be in the same league. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, watching a team from continental Europe run out at an English club was almost like seeing players from a different part of the universe. Lots of things have changed since then, nothing has really changed since then. We are still watching teams who are from a planet of their own.
Photo: ALAMY – Chelsea win 1-0 at Maine Road in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup semi-final in 1971, goalkeeper Ronnie Healy has just pushed a Keith Weller cross into his own net.